“Golf design is a combination of art and engineering”
— Tim Lobb
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Australian golf architect Tim Lobb has been designing golf courses in Europe for more than 20 years, and has restored some of the most famous names in golf. Previously working with Peter Thomson, he’s recently founded Lobb and Partners following his partner’s retirement. He talks exclusively to Golf Travel Solutions about his life in golf and how courses are starting to respect their heritage…

I actually put ‘golf architect’ on my careers’ day form. I had been a mad-keen golfer from the age of ten and I’d seen a renovation being done by Peter Thomson at my club in Melbourne which I just found it fascinating. I was a decent golfer, a five handicapper, but nothing spectacular.

Golf design is a combination of art and creativity and engineering. You really need to understand things like grading and drainage, but then you have to look at what people actually see. People only see drainage when it doesn’t work.

Ninety per cent of the job is underground. That’s a huge eye opener when you first start, it’s just so complex. If people play a course and think, ‘wow, this is so natural, it fits right into the landscape’, then you’ve done your job.

Drainage is probably the single most critical factor. Especially when you’re working in the Tropics and close to the Equator. It’s not only vital in creating a good playing surface, but if it’s bad then the construction process can have total wash-outs.

I often start by working out where the clubhouse is going to go. From there you know there’s going to be four holes and probably a driving range nearby. About 22 per cent of what you need to design begins in that location so it’s the perfect starting point.

You first plot the par fives and par fours. These are obviously the longest holes you have to fit on the land, whereas the par threes you put in last, because they’re easier to fit in. You can use the par threes to get over difficult bits of land, where it’s a bit steep, or a bit tight – they’re good connectors.

Every course design starts with pen and paper. You still have a drawing board and ruler, then as you develop your sketch it goes onto tracing paper and mapped over the land. The sketch gets developed on paper for quite a long time before you put it into the computer to work out the exact areas and grading.

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The whole design process takes around four to six months. You also have to get geotechnical tests which tell you all about the soil, where the water is, where the groundwater is sitting – it could be just a metre under the surface, meaning you can’t dig too much. No design can be complete before you have all that information.

Dumping a load of earth won’t create a perfect mound. The bulk earthwork companies put the bumps where they should be and then a shaper comes in and smooths it all out. There’s definitely an art to it, it’s not like buildings with straight lines, a course is curvy and needs massaging.

You have to respect the historical content of a golf course. Quite often our role is to restore the original design intent. You have to hold your ego a bit and respect what the club was and what it should be. It’s not exactly putting everything back because some changes happen for a reason.

Golf clubs are starting to appreciate their history. The trend coming from States now is bringing places back to their original design. The other big call at the moment is because of finance – people want courses that are easier to maintain at a high level.

Courses aren’t easy, golfers are getting better. I think when you go into tournament scoring, is 20 under such a bad thing? It makes for good golf in my opinion and is a reflection of how good golfers and technology are. The credit should go to them rather than blame the course.

I’d say, on average, a course takes 18 months to build. Some take a lot longer and that depends on the client. Some have a really good understanding of the game, our client in Turkey is a keen golfer and you always respect what they have to say. Sometimes there’ll have travelled all over the world to play golf and it can be good to get their feedback.

Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie were pioneers. Their designs have stood the test of time. What they were able to do back then was incredible, they wouldn’t be able to move earth like we can. That said, they didn’t have the planning restrictions we have today.

Pros see courses differently. Sometimes, I think when the design courses they reflect their own game too much and that can make it a bit difficult to play for Mr Average. You always need to leave an option for strategic golf so that the average guy can play along the ground.

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Golf design doesn’t feel like a job. It’s got everything you could want: creativity, the technical side, the challenge of overcoming obstacles, the satisfaction of building something and then you get to watch golfers play it.

We have a lot of projects in Africa at the moment. We’re getting most of our new golf projects from experienced developers who are willing to put serious investment into their projects. In a post-recession world there are very few ‘buy off the plan’ golf resort developments like we saw in southern Europe in the late 90s and 00s. Many of our new build projects are in Africa where the golf and golfing communities seems to be growing.

I hope I don’t have a particular style. I want a design that specific for that project and the land. Like Bodrum in Turkey, we probably had no more than 20 bunkers because the ground is pure rock and we didn’t want to dig holes everywhere. In the end we had something quite unique as a result.

Pros don’t always do what you want them to. It’s always interesting when you see a pro on your course, it’s hard to predict what they’ll do though. You may have set a hole for risk-reward strategy, but in a tournament then they decide to play conservatively because they don’t need to take the shot over the lake.

The 17th on the Old Course is my favourite hole. It’s so bloody difficult, you’d never design anything like that anymore – that’s what makes it brilliant, what a challenge. I’ve only parred it once in my life and I’ve played it a fair bit.

Pine Valley is No.1 on my list of courses I’d love to play. It’s just seen as something so natural when it comes to the design and landscape, it’s a course for real golf purists.

I think it makes it more exciting when tournaments return to venues. Like The Masters at Augusta, people always remember certain shots that happened before, so it means when you actually go there yourself you’re thinking about those moments and the parts of the course on which they happened. It always looks different in real life though.

At the Ryder Cup players tend to really go for it. Every tournament offers you something different: The Open, The Masters and the Ryder Cup are all completely different, they have a different feel. At the Ryder Cup they’ll have risk-rewards holes where they can go for shots whereas in strokeplay they will often play quite conservatively off the tee and then attack from there.

I never thought it was possible to do what Europe did at the Ryder Cup in Medinah.I was there and you could actually feel the atmosphere building from the very start of the day, and then you had Rory arriving late too! I was right next to his tee when he started and he absolutely ripped it. It was amazing how Europe turned it around, the momentum was just something else – I didn’t think what they did was possible.

Whatever you do, someone might not like it. Golf courses are subjective, you can’t keep everyone happy and it depends what kind of round they have. You have to have a thick skin, but sometimes it’s best to have people being critical of your course, it just mean you’ve pushed the design to the limit.